Virtual reality is a new and complex addition to the eLearning ecosystem. Designing user experiences can prove equally complex—but extremely rewarding as an eLearning modality. Creating effective immersive learning experiences means paying special attention to UX in virtual reality.
Design is essential to learning. As we’ve recognized over the past 20 years, user interface design and the user experience are paramount to the success of our programs and therefore to the retention of knowledge and performance development of our learners. We have focused on the placement of objects on the 2D screen, the color choices, the navigation and orientation, and other elements of designing a flat space on a desktop.
How 3D environments differ from 2D
The 3D environment of VR differs substantially from the 2D desktop:
- The space encompasses 360 degrees and is an immersive experience, not merely a 6×9-inch window.
- No one is likely to get motion sickness while watching a desktop video, but a poorly designed 3D space can produce nausea and disorientation that distract from an effective learning experience.
- Interactions are less likely to be clickable objects and more likely to flow from how the learner moves about the 3D space and experiences the content.
In VR, the user’s role in the space is the framework for good interface design.
Improve UX in VR
With that in mind, here are eight best practices for VR user experience design.
- Create a believable virtual experience: Perspective is essential for effective virtual realities. Virtual realities should reflect real-world environments. Camera placement and height are of foremost importance. Imagine sitting behind a desk in a VR experience and feeling like you’re six feet tall. Indications of depth, including lighting, shadows, and backgrounds, reinforce a believable 3D environment. In short, a more complete and appropriately proportioned environment is more likely to resonate with users.
- Provide a clear role for the user: Transform the observer into an active participant. Users should have a clear sense of what the experience is for and what their goals are. A short tutorial allows users to adapt to the virtual environment while giving them a sense of control. Interactive elements allow users to engage with content, shifting them from observing to actively participating. Rich storytelling coupled with interactive elements creates an engaging experience.
- Immerse users in the experience: The best experience is one where users forget they are in a virtual environment. Agency presents the users with freedom of choice. Guidance should be used to direct users’ attention, but ultimately how they choose to interact with elements is up to them. Interactive elements within an experience create a sense of engagement; otherwise, users are simply observers.
- Engage the senses: Use sensory elements for interaction cues and tracking feedback. Use of audio for spatial positioning helps achieve immersion, as it reinforces a sense of space and responsiveness. Visual elements provide users with a sense of their environment. These effects can be used to cue interactions by highlighting specific objects in the environment, for example, in addition to being used for user interface elements.
- Focus users’ attention: Be intentional and deliberate when attracting attention. It is easy to overwhelm users in virtual reality environments. Two common user responses to recognize:
- Detective mode: These users examine all elements within an environment. Learners will attempt to find meaning for everything in the environment. Don’t put anything in the VR space that does not serve a purpose.
- Toddler mode: This occurs when users put on a headset for the first time. Typically, they tune out any outside stimuli and focus on exploring the environment. They become enamored with the interactivity and depth of their surroundings. Avoid starting the instructional process too soon. Allow users to explore at their own pace.
- Keep interactions consistent: Consistency across interactive elements is important to maintain a fidelity contract. Otherwise, users may question what is interactive and what’s not, causing confusion and a cognitive load increase. Visual and audio cues should be used consistently to identify interactive capability, in addition to providing feedback during and post-interaction.
- Don’t ignore environmental design: Placement is significant. Research has shown that placing objects and characters between 1 and 20 meters away from the user helps achieve a 3D effect. If interface elements are closer than that, they may cause discomfort. If there are multiple elements in an environment, they should be large enough and have sufficient space.
Because users are in control of the camera, interface elements should be stationary and never move around as the learner moves. Interface elements should be controller input-based (point and click/grab) rather than gaze-based.
Screen resolution issues may affect text readability. Avoid using big text blocks and other highly detailed user interface elements, or plan for ways to make them accessible.
- Consider users’ safety and comfort: Combat motion sickness with good design and development practices. Motion sickness is caused by conflicts between different sensory inputs. This has a large amount of variability among users, making user testing essential.
It is critical to work within users’ field of vision; the average is between 90 and 110 degrees. Otherwise, users will likely find the experience uncomfortable and unnatural. Allow users to define the duration of their sessions, and make it possible for them to pause the experience as they wish.
It is extremely important for users to have a safe space to operate in throughout the experience. If they are walking around in the virtual world, ensure that they have ample space to do so in the real world.